Archive for November 2008
Produced with Lorrie Matheson, former Calgarian Rae Spoon’s first long-player since a satisfying 2006 collaboration with Rodney DeCroo is a revelation.
superioryouareinferior (the title hints at a comparison Spoon makes to the ocean; the greatest lake is found lacking) is a fully realized depiction of an artist in transition.
Casting aside the banjo from previous outings, Rae Spoon fleshes out songs using his voice as instrument. Spoon, Matheson and others contribute a range of charming instrumental sounds, but the music is sparse, secondary to the ambient qualities of the singing. And while the naïve plunk of his earlier, country-based music is missed, Spoon is strong and assured in this new direction.
Vocally part Brett Dennen, part Dolores O’Riordon, Spoon even gets his Feist on in several places. The songs capture poetic images within a smart, restrained presentation model- if the Cocteau Twins reformed as an alt.folk outfit, they might produce a recording suggestive of superioryouareinferior. Violin, guitar, bass, drums, electronica allsorts, and glockenspiel are woven into soundtrack with international appeal.
The supremacy of the ocean is again alluded to in Strength From Within, an inspirational song receiving two very different treatments on the disc: “You can’t fight the water with strength from within…we’ve gotta find a way to get the ocean on our side.”
“Do I have what it takes to make it through the other side?” Spoon asks at one point, and the answer must be a resounding, Yes.
And the Wheels Turn
I need to be honest. I am not the biggest fan of wimpy-assed country songs, especially when sung by women. Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t see the appeal of syrupy lullabies disguised as emotionally-charged statements of sisterhood. If all a song has to offer are Martina McBride-isms, I’ll pass, thank you very much.
So I approached Melonie Cannon’s And the Wheels Turn with reluctance and apprehension. I had listened to her previous eponymous (did anyone use that word prior to 1988?) album on the Skaggs Family label. It didn’t make much of an impact. Not sure why, but it didn’t. Based on this new Rural Rhythm release, I’ll be giving it another listen.
Yes, almost every song finds a female protagonist fighting her way through a challenge- often a man or relationship, sometimes a loss or ‘the dark shadows’ of memory. And inevitably- if unrealistically- she finds herself on the other side, stronger for the experience. But, collectively, the album is greater than this description may lead one to anticipate. It is assuedly superior to what typically comes from the Nashville corporations.
And the Wheels Turn is a twelve-track assemblage of country songs with (largely) bluegrass instrumentation. Produced by Buddy Cannon and Ronnie Bowman, the same team as last time out, the arrangements and instrumental choices complement Cannon, framing her voice with poignant shadings necessary for maximum impact.
And yet, it doesn’t feel or sound calculating in any way!
What separates Melonie Cannon from female singers that have recently lost my interest- amongst them some prominent bluegrass voices- is that when she emotes in a song, it strikes me as legitimate. Cannon the singer has experienced these songs, even when Cannon the person hasn’t. Technically, perhaps others can tear apart an emotional song better than she, but it comes across as just play-acting from them. To me, it is the difference between Wynette and McEntire, and it’s what distinguishes Emmylou from Faith.
When Cannon sings, I accept as true that she sat on a plane beside a girl holding a “Cactus in a Coffee Can.” I enjoy “It’s All Right There” without the presence of any disingenuousness in what could be a soppy drive down memory lane. “Mary Magdalene (Why You Cryin’)” has a little Wynonna sass in it, and I appreciate that. Even the album’s most potentially cloying song “The Day Before You” succeeds in communicating the fragile line between What Is and What Could Have Been.
It takes balls to brave Vern Gosdin, but on “Set ’Em Up Joe” Cannon demonstrates that she can sing (and drink?) the best of them under the table; the liner notes hint that this isn’t the first time she’s taken on what may be her daddy’s most famous song. The title cut is masterful, and that song’s ‘What’s good for the gander…’ twist is appreciated even with repeated listening.
A new song- “I’ve Seen Enough of What’s Behind Me”- captures in a single image, that of an unattached rearview mirror, all the power necessary to catapult a song from pedestrian to impactful. Similarly, “I Just Don’t Have It In Me” has a pivotal pair of lines (“Cuss and scream and throw a few things, And leave my heart at the door”) that ensure the song resonates.
The album lists twenty musician credits, but doesn’t provide a song-by-song dossier. Randy Kohrs’s steel guitars are all over the album, lending atmospheric depth. The banjo is by Jody King and is a pleasure to hear. Other instrumental guests include Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford, Dan Tyminski, Willie Nelson, and Ricky Skaggs with Tyminski, Bowman, Skaggs, and Sonya Isaacs among those singing along.
What And the Wheels Turn demonstrates as much as anything is that country and bluegrass can be blended into a very palatable, individual sound that is non-generic. To do so requires a depth of natural understanding that few artists possess. Obviously, Melonie Cannon has the vocal and instinctive maturity to help each song find just the right road to travel.
And the wheels turn…
Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Songs
Much has been written about the vocal change Ian Tyson has undergone over the recent past.
Reading about such an alteration doesn’t really prepare one for hearing the deeper, weathered voice that comes through the speakers from Tyson’s latest release. The voice that was once so immediately identifiable is gone, ravaged by a destructive virus.
Tyson’s new voice may not be embraced straight away by casual fans, but those of us who have stuck with Ol’ Eon through the highs and lows- including the personally disappointing Songs from the Gravel Road- will find much to enjoy on this ten-track collection. And indeed part of what makes this album of such interest is Tyson’s new sound.
It may appear unfair or even asinine, but at times in the past it has seemed almost too easy for Tyson to be Ian Tyson. The changes and challenges he’s faced over the past few years have made him more accessible to listeners, perhaps more personable, and have brought a new dimension to his music.
This is likely Tyson’s finest collection of songs in a decade, possibly longer. As the title indicates, relationships are at its core, and the separation of partners is a prominent theme. The title cut traces the life of a pair of alpha wolves relocated from Alberta to Wyoming. It is an instant Tyson classic, and joins the legion of songs he has written that will stand the test of time.
Abandonment is metaphorically explored within Lioness; as in Yellowhead to Yellowstone, the male survives the relationship, but this time his strength fails him. My Cherry Colored Rose, a song not written by Tyson, explores Don Cherry’s loss in a way that reminds us that Canada’s favourite buffoon is more than the caricature we see on our television screens.
Elsewhere, relationships go fallow (The Fiddler Must Be Paid) and flourish (Go This Far) and folks that are the type Tyson appreciates are recognized (Ross Knox and Bill Kane). One song is apparently about Tyson’s daughter, and Estrangement doesn’t paint a pleasant picture.
Unlike Tyson’s previous foray into jazz territory, this time out the instrumentation is solidly within the western and country structure in which he has been most successful. Much of the credit for the success of this album goes to producer Harry Stinson; the former Dead Reckoner has framed Tyson’s lyrics and voice with supportive sounds that complement the images created.
No one knows how many more albums Tyson has in him. Recent interviews give the impression he would be comfortable fading into the sunset someday soon. With sensitivity and depth, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Songs provides ample evidence that Ian Tyson still has a great deal to offer.
Subtitled A Clawhammer Banjo Collection, if anyone wanted to argue that the rhythmic, frailing style of mountain banjo playing doesn’t belong in bluegrass, this forty minute collection would serve as a solid refute.
In the space of 18 uplifting tunes- fully half of which are culled from the Rebel archives and were previously unreleased- Dr. Ralph Stanley takes listeners on a journey from his earliest days playing songs taught to him by his mother (Shout Little Lulie) to a powerhouse take of Battle Ax recorded in 1996. Several tracks from as recent as 2000 and 2001 are revealed, including notable takes of Married Life Blues and Cripple Creek.
Ralph Stanley is a bluegrass and mountain music legend, and this collection with its wide variety of material not previously released on CD- capturing him both at the peak of his game and in his days as a still capable elder statesman of the 5-string banjo- is a welcome addition to his canon.
Sex & Gasoline
Rodney Crowell once had six consecutive Canadian country number ones, and long ago became a staple on the Americana landscape; he has released a series of introspective and refined albums since 2001 that rival if not surpass the bodies of work produced by Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle over the same period of time.
“This mean old world runs on sex and gasoline” sings Rodney Crowell on his thirteenth album in thirty-plus years. Closing in on 60, the album’s cover art depicts which subject is at the fore of Crowell’s thinking but, of course, nothing is so linear in Crowell’s songs.
Producer Joe Henry, who effectively focused Mary Gauthier’s Between Daylight and Dark last year, brings similar acuity to this project. If one is searching for mature, thought-provoking Americana- songs that balance country, folk, and rock elements while maintaining a tempo of folksy shuffles- this disc may be the object of your quest.
The sounds contained within Sex & Gasoline are not terribly different than those on 2005’s The Outsider. In fact, several of the songs- Moving Work of Art and The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design- would fit very well with that collection of songs, thematically and sonically.
What is significant this time out is that Crowell seems to have rediscovered his sense of whimsy, something that was not always obvious on recent releases. While addressing serious topics and reflecting on his own shortcomings, Crowell is less heavy than at points in the recent past.
Crowwll cuts loose his inner Dylan (I Want You #35), harmonizes with Phil Everly (Truth Decay), examines himself (Who Do You Trust?) and those he loves (Forty Years), and has a little fun (Funky and the Farm-Boy).
All in all, a complete and worthwhile package. Check out the YouTube clips for more.
I created a tiny firestorm a bit ago when I posted- rather unflatteringly- about Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain’s latest album. The (semi-) fully realized review is now up at the Lonesome Road Review site. Click on the link if you’re interested. Donald